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Stormy weather welcomes Spring

Tornadoes, snow, caps stormy week across eastern states.

BY JOHN PAPE | HOUSTON, TX | March 26, 2011

A fast-moving storm front spawned tornadoes in Tennessee and Pennsylvania Wednesday, destroying dozens of homes and buildings but causing no fatalities and few injuries.

David Gaffin, a National Weather Service forecaster in Morristown, Tenn., said an assessment team would confirm whether the storms that destroyed buildings across the central and eastern parts of the state were, in fact, tornadoes.

Even without weather service confirmation, most residents are already convinced tornadoes caused the widespread destruction.

At least two people were hospitalized after the apparent tornado touched down around 10 p.m. in Greenback, a small community of less than 1,000 residents in east-central Tennessee. According to Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron, the victims’ injuries did not appear to be life-threatening.

Several homes were damaged, Herron said, some severely.

At least one residence in the Ashbrook neighborhood belonging to David Cooper was completely demolished. Most of what was once Cooper’s home was laying in a pile of debris in the middle of Ashbrook Lane, blocking access to the area.

On Thursday morning, Cooper was sifting through the rubble to save what personal possession he could while a large front-end loader scraped the remains of his former residence from the street. Luckily, Cooper and his wife were not home when the tornado struck.

“We came over here and started to pick up what we could pick up last night,” Cooper said. “Now we’re just waiting on everybody else to do what they have to do the insurance company and the like.”

Cooper also said he was thankful no one was home when the storm hit.

“I can’t see how anybody could’ve survived that. It was just the grace of God we weren’t home,” he said.

Nearby, another resident sifted through the remains of his mobile home after it was tossed across four lanes of Hwy. 411. Charles Emmett said he, too, was lucky to be alive, crediting a change in his work schedule.

“I’m feeling very lucky. We switched to the second shift about a month ago and I’ve been on the (evening) shift,” Emmett said. “Normally, I would have been at home in there asleep.”

Despite losing virtually everything, Emmett remained philosophical.

“It’s just part of life; you’ve got to go on,” he said. “It’s time to make a fresh start.”

With power out in much of Greenback, including the downtown area and the community’s fire station, Fire Chief Ronnie Lett asked Kathy Brooks if he could set up a command post in Brooks’ Greenback Corner Market and Diner. The store was one of the few places in town with electricity.

“We re-opened with everything going on. They needed somewhere and we told them we’d stay open until they didn’t need us anymore,” Brooks said.

Officials believe the tornado touched down near Hwy. 95 in Loudon County and then continued into Blount County as the storm system moved across the area. What appeared to be a funnel cloud was spotted by a sheriff’s deputy near the county line during the height of the storm, according to Loudon County GIS Manager Ray Boswell.

In Blount County, located on the Tennessee-North Carolina border, a car dealership and boat company were both all but destroyed. Blount County Mayor Ed Mitchell said one of the buildings was stripped down to the slab and cars and boats were flipped over and tossed across the adjacent highway.

Despite the severe damage, no injuries were reported, according to Mitchell.

“I have never seen anything that devastating without the loss of life or major injuries,” Mitchell said.

He also reported a man and his dog were in a camper that flipped over near the boat company, but both survived without serious injuries.

State troopers and local police closed highways and roads in the area until transportation crews could clear the debris. Sgt. Stacey Heatherly with the Tennessee Highway Patrol also said troopers spent much of the evening checking the area for victims, but none were found.

Near Sparta, in White County between Nashville and Knoxville, at least one mobile home was destroyed by a twister that also downed trees and power lines around 7 p.m. Additionally, several homes were reportedly blown off their foundations.

Again, no injuries were reported.

Ironically, one of the families whose mobile home was destroyed was also a victim of Hurricane Katrina. The Ancar-Brinkley family moved to the Sparta area after their home was destroyed by the hurricane in 2005. The family recently learned their new home in Louisiana had been completed and were preparing to move out of the mobile home when the tornado struck.

A family member who did not give her name said the family was preparing to pack for the move, when the tornado hit and destroyed all their possessions.

“They were just down there Thursday, so they were just getting back home yesterday to start packing their things to make the move back to Louisiana when this happened,” the woman said.

Damage was also reported near Watertown in Wilson County where a barn was blown down on Old Alexandria Road and the roof was blown off a home on Haley Road.

Tennessee was not the only state where the storm system spawned tornadoes. The National Weather Service confirmed an F-2 tornado hit the Greensburg area, about 25 miles east of Pittsburgh, Wednesday afternoon. Winds were estimated at 120 miles per hour.

An estimated 30 homes were completely destroyed and 60 others damaged, with most of the devastation centered around Hempfield Township. Despite the widespread destruction, Westmoreland County Emergency Management spokesman Dan Stevens said there were no reports of deaths or serious injuries.

White called the lack of casualties “absolutely a March miracle.”

Hempfield High School was among the buildings hit by the tornado, sending students taking part in after-school activities fleeing for their lives. Student Austin Heminger was one of the students who made it out of the school just before the tornado struck.

“We were in the math lab and the leaves started to pick up and we heard this really loud wind and we were told to run,” Heminger later said. “I took off my headphones and all I heard was, 'Run!' and I threw them down and I ran out the door and I looked out the window and there were things just picking up.”

School employee Helen Wellek was in the cafeteria when the twister hit.

“It was actually ripping the roof off of the auditorium lobby and the mini-theater,” Wellek said. “You could see the sky.”

Stevens credited school staff with getting everyone to safety.

After the storm, debris and school equipment littered the school grounds, forcing police to block off the area to prevent looting.

The twister also destroyed a field house, scoreboard and press box at the school. The school district canceled classes Thursday, as well as all after-school activities and practices. The district also issued a statement saying no one was permitted to enter the high school property.

The American Red Cross opened a shelter at the Hempfield Township Municipal Building for those displaced by the storm. No information was immediately available on the number of individuals seeking shelter.

In the Westmoreland County community of Arona, a tornado destroyed most of Bob Boice’s 87-year-old farm. Even though the entire family was home, there were no injuries; however, the barn, equipment shed and most of the equipment for the 93-acre farm was destroyed.

“I’m not really the crying type, but this is unbelievable,” Boice said.

In addition to the tornado, large hail and damaging straight-line winds were also reported. In Washington, Penn., winds blew part of the roof off of a Family Dollar store. Golf ball- and quarter-size hail was reported throughout the area, while hail with a two-inch diameter was reported in McKeesport.

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